Fortune telling has a bright future

Reading ancient Roman history can leave you with the impression that fortune telling works.

A soothsayer informed Julius Caesar to beware of the ides of March (March 15). He was murdered on this day.

An astrologer correctly predicted that Otho, who had no familial ties to the ruling dynasty, would one day be emperor.

The emperor Domitian was predicted to meet his end at noon time. Despite the emperor’s best efforts to be on guard each day at noon, he was finally murdered at noon time.

The Roman king Hadrian was cursed by one of his opponents to “long for death but be unable to die”. In his later years, Hadrian was gripped by an illness that caused him much suffering. He tried several times to commit suicide, but each of these were discovered and foiled.

This list of accurate prophesies can go on and on. However, there is sure to be a much longer list of prophesies that did not work – a list that is lost to us, since people only talk about and record prophesies that work.

Consider a person who visits an astrologer. Say, the astrologer makes 10 predictions, of which merely 1 materializes with great accuracy. It is natural that the person tells the story (with much animation) about the 1 accurate prediction at a dinner party, whereas the other 9 are forgotten. Prophesies are asymmetric – accurate prophesies make for good stories, whereas the ones that miss their mark merely bore everyboday. Ancient Roman historians merely reinforced this asymmetry across generations to leave us with a selection of prophesies that seem deadly accurate.

The reason fortune telling is still practiced in the 21st century is merely due to our mind’s ability to hand-pick accurate predictions, while forgetting false predicitons. Despite all our scientific progress, fortune telling will continue to thrive so long as we don’t let the boring truth ruin an interesting story.

So here’s my 21st century prediction – fortune telling has a bright future.

Recommended listening: The History of Rome

The truth is durable

Truth doesn’t spread quickly. Rumours do.

Ergo, we find ourselves constantly surrounded by rumours that spread like an epidemic. Sure, there is a grain of truth in this rumours, but it comes with a background noise of falsehood.

Truth doesn’t die quickly. Rumours do.

As time passes, falsehood fades away, leaving behind the kernel of truth. A monthly magazine article on a topic is likely to be more accurate than a daily newspaper report. A historical piece on an event from the last decade is truer still.The longer a piece of literature has survived, the truer it is likely to be. However, it takes several decades for certain falsehoods to lose their grip. Patience is key. 

What was news yesterday is not likely to be news today. What we know to be true from a thousand years in the past is likely to stay true a thousand years from now.

Fake news isn’t an internet problem

Just because some news  spreads quickly, it doesn’t mean that it’s true.

Gossip and rumours spread more quickly than the truth. Information that spreads most easily is information that is merely good at spreading quickly – news that is juicy, spicy, and piques our emotions. Truth, on the other hand, is nuanced and boring. It invariably falls behind.

Therefore, we are constantly surrounded by information that is interesting, but not true. If you care about knowing the truth, this is obviously a problem.

Has the internet caused this problem? No. The grapevine, gossip mongers, tabloids, and all manners of propaganda predate the internet. Most of them have been around ever since we invented language – our hunter gatherer ancestors often indulged in gossip. The internet has merely added rocket fuel to this problem by enabling the spread of sketchy information far and wide in the time it takes to click a button.

Fake news isn’t an internet problem – it is a human problem.